Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#1 Lincoln in the Bardo (& a recap)

LincolnintheBardoThere are certain things you know you’re going to find when you sit down to read a George Saunders story.  It will be weird, funny, engaging, and surprisingly deep.  I expected no less from Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel and I was not disappointed.

The book, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, uses a little-known but poignant episode from Abraham Lincoln’s life as a center around which to turn: Lincoln’s late night visit to a DC cemetery in the early part of the Civil War to visit the mausoleum where his young son, Willie, died.  From that point of connection with history, Saunders creates a universe of characters – ghosts who are watching and lamenting their own unresolved lives.

Lincoln is interesting, but it’s the ghosts who take center stage.  They are the ones who, like the dead in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, carry, in exaggerated form, the distortions of their lives, waiting until they can accept the peace that awaits them.  They cling to their past–not wanting to acknowledge their deaths, not wanting to let go of the ones they love, and not believing that the angels who visit can mean them anything but harm.

It’s haunting and beautiful and it’s my best read of 2017.  Click the link on the title above for my full review.

lysander-yuen-288916And now, to recap the Best Reads of 2017:

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

4. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

5. The Crucifixion:Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

7. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

8. American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

9. Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James

10. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Other great reads:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps you’ll see in this Top Ten list the preoccupations of my reading life–what it means to inhabit a place, how it is that we live together and grow apart, and how a richer world inhabits this one.  Here’s to your good reading in 2018!

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God, love, God, love: The Winn Collier Interview Concludes (3 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeIn previous segments of this interview with Winn Collier we talked small towns, small churches, and his use of letters to tell the story of Granby Presbyterian Church, the fictional congregation at the heart of Collier’s new book.  Love Big. Be Well.:Letters to a Small-Town Church is a big-hearted, hopeful book that celebrates what Christian community can be.  My review of the book is accessible through the title link above.

In this segment we talk about the book, the recent Texas church shooting, and the rhythm of writing:

I was reminded of [Marilynne Robinson’s] Gilead as I read your book.  When your preacher, Jonas, starts talking of the virtues of blessing, it reminded me of the story in Gilead of trying to baptize the cats and just the importance of blessing.  They’re both very human stories and a very human vision of what life in a community of faith is all about. 

How do you connect that to how God works in the world? I’m thinking about Karl Barth who said, “You can’t speak about God by talking about man in a loud voice,” but in a sense, you are kind of pointing that direction through human relationships.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Again I go back to Incarnation.  In the world I grew up in there was a grand separation between God and the rest of the world. The culture and the creation and all these things really, they were just functional they had nothing to do with God’s revelation to us. I was overwhelmed and saved by sacramental theology and so I reject that.  But I am aware that it’s possible, if you never name God, then our human mind really can forget God.

Jonas, in Love Big. Be Well., talks about how his job as a pastor is to stand within the community Sunday after Sunday and point to God and to speak the words of God and to speak the word love and speak ‘God, love, God, love’ into the world.  And that’s how I see it. I think that’s fundamentally my job.

I think that’s what a small church, or every church, should do—to stand in the middle of this community, to be enmeshed within it, just as Jesus was, not separate from it, not trying to draw these huge dividing lines, but to say, “We are here.  We are immersed.  It is messy.  It’s wheat and tares.  We’re going to be here.  We’re going to claim the love and presence of God in the world.”

That’s a destabilizing factor because I think God is a disruptive reality.  If the church forgets its mission to be the presence of God and not just a vague idea of God as we define it but the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ…If we don’t speak that presence into the world then we are abandoning our identity and our calling and ultimately, we are abandoning the possibility for the depth of healing and redemption that God is inviting us to bring into the world.

So it definitely is not just, in a loud voice, saying all our ideas.  But it’s also not divorced in any way.  It is manifest through or built through friendships and dinners and work and all the things that make up human existence because that’s how God has chosen to reveal himself.

imagesWe’re talking in the week after the shooting in Texas in a small church. I was doing some writing this morning to the churches here on the Shore about church security and  struggling with what that means and trying to come to terms with what it means to be vulnerable, which is part of our call as a community.  Do you have any reflections in light of that event about what small churches mean?

I’ll tell you one thing I love: I love the way the community of Sutherland Springs, even ones who were not part of that church on a Sunday rhythm, seemed to see that church as very much part of who they were and their identity together.  I think that’s potent.

My hunch is that in Granby (the fictional town of the book), Jonas would have had a couple people who really wanted to make sure the next Sunday they had their fire arms to use.  I think Jonas would have resisted that with everything within him simply because we are peculiar people who are here to proclaim God.   And to proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.

“To proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.”

At the same time, I think Jonas is kind of befuddled about some of these things.  He’s not a consistent pacifist but in his heart he is. So, I think he would struggle with that like all of us are in knowing where is wisdom and where is the prophetic voice. But at the same time, I think he would just keep bringing it back to Jesus and what does it mean to be a people of Jesus and trust it in the long work.

That’s well put because I think the struggle I’ve had this week is allowing the gunman and the incident to determine the field on which we play and the kind of things we talk about and it’s so easy to do because it seems like an easy fix to just say, “Well, if we just had a good guy with a gun at the door, it wouldn’t happen.”

Yeah, and this is for every Christian and every church, but if we can hold on to the fact that we are resurrection people and that death is our enemy but is not our final enemy, then there actually are things worse than dying.  If we can release that stranglehold on our heart then it opens up a lot of possibilities.  As long as our self-protection is the ultimate god to us and God will never be God then we are ultimately going to make grave errors.

Well how are you finding ways to keep writing a part of your life these days? This is me being curious about how you fit it all in.

aaron-burden-90144I have a weekly rhythm and Monday is set aside as my creative day so anything like writing, sometimes other things, but that’s my day. Most of this book I actually wrote on sabbatical two and a half years ago.  I wasn’t planning to finish it but I just knew I wanted to write every day and have that as one of my main practices and it ended up happening.

I’m actually working on a biography now and I’m finding it much more difficult because the kind of research that has to happen is of a different level.  I am actually in this precise moment feeling more anxiety about that because that’s basically the time I have.  The rest of my time is given to church and family. So, every once in a while, if there’s a week here or there where I don’t have to preach or other things are less pressing I’ll slip in some extra time but I am definitely wondering how this is going to work.

I know that struggle when you’re trying to be precise about some things, like you’d have to do with a research-oriented book, coming back to it after you’ve gone away from it for a while.  It’s so much uploading of information again just to get to the point where you can write again.

Yeah that’s right!

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photo by Peter Feghali via Unsplash

Anything else about the book that you would particularly like folks to know?

I would be really pleased if people read this book and felt more hopeful.  Because I feel like we’re in a time that’s devoid of hope.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville.  You can access his blog at winncollier.com.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#2 Work Like Any Other

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It seems a shame not to award this book the top spot just because I got to it late.  Truthfully, it could still take the prize despite the fact that my self-imposed rules say that being published in 2017 adds a little weight to the scale.  Be that as it may, if you haven’t read Virginia Reeves’ 2016 novel Work Like Any Other, run, don’t walk to the local library or bookseller.

More than anything else, it is a celebration of the soul of place, which, of course, always earns stars in my book.  The narrative about the incarceration of Roscoe Martin in 1920s Alabama, his marriage, racial injustice in the prison system, and, (wait for it), rural electrification(!), moves along, but it’s the characters and the landscape that get into your blood.

That and Reeves’ incredible writing.  My interview with her was another of the highlights of my year.  Reeves is writing a new novel about Montana that is on my most-anticipated list for 2018.

My review of Work Like Any Other is accessible through the title link above.

How to Make Your Church Inefficient: The Winn Collier interview continues (2 of 3)

fullsizeoutput_18a7In the first part of my interview with Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Charlottesville and author of Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church, we talked about his decision to set his novel in a small town.  We also talked about the use of letters as a way to tell the story of a pastor and his congregation.  In this segment we dig deeper into why small congregations should treasure a particular kind of inefficiency.  Click on the title link for my review of the book.

I know you lived in Waco, Texas.  Did you grow up there?

From sixth grade on, yes.

Before Chip and Joanna Gaines turned it into what it is today right?

Exactly.  Now it is the Magnolia Mecca.

Yes, and with the new Baylor football stadium.

Oh, it’s massive.  Yeah, it’s changed drastically since when I was there.

Winn-Standing-Books-Stained-Glass

Winn Collier

So, when you were there it was probably more of a small city.  You’re living in a small city now.  How much is Charlottesville or the places you’ve lived before in the place you imagine in the new book? 

[The fictional town of Granby is] definitely smaller than any place I’ve lived so in that sense its feels very different but it feels like a lot of places that I’ve maybe visited.  It’s probably more like places that I drive through and maybe towns that I’ve visited when we lived in Colorado.  One of my favorite authors is Kent Haruf and all of his stories are set in one fictional town in Colorado, and there’s just something I think that I love about that.  So it’s just where I go.

Where I live now on the Eastern Shore is very rural and I’m working with a whole lot of churches that feel like the kind of church you’re imagining in the book.  Confronting a  narrative of despair and decline is a huge challenge.  Do you see new opportunities even in places like that?

Absolutely!  I absolutely do.  In fact I think in some ways these small, rural churches are actually on the front lines of what’s happening because it’s a place where we are grappling with the most human realities that we are struggling with.  Sometimes in massive churches with massive resources, that are run in many ways like a Fortune 500 corporation, they are actually more disconnected from some of the harsher struggles that our communities are facing.

I’m not trying to paint one as bad and the other one as good. I think these large churches also are able to amass energy and resources towards large questions and they are able to ignite some kind of movement and responses to things.  Sometimes it’s really helpful and sometimes it’s very short-sighted.

In some of our larger expressions of faith it’s just very difficult to keep the human at the center and if the incarnation tells us anything is that this joining of humanity with God is at the very heart of what God’s doing in the world.  To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships.

In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.  It has its own struggles.  It has its own questions about sustainability and we have to be creative about those sorts of things, but there are things a small church is attuned to and can respond to and be for people that a large church absolutely never can.

“To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships. In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.”

In some ways, lots of small churches spread all over the vastness of our country is actually our hope way more than a growing handful of massive churches.  So I think that there’s actually a lot of hope there and in lots of churches where people are.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_What I find most encouraging and interesting and hopeful is those small churches that really are reflections of their community.  They really are a part of the fabric of the life of that community.  They’re living out a parish model that most of the rest of us are doing our best to try to fabricate and so were left at the end of the day doing the best we can.  We do have to do the best we can but doing the best we can is trying to fabricate something.  That’s why we have things such as small group ministry.  It’s important because where else are you going to get connected?  But we have to be honest and say were having to do this because we are so uprooted and because our lives are no longer bound together.

Yeah.

We’re no longer working in a couple square blocks or neighboring our neighbors farm, and were no longer going to one another’s place when it’s time to harvest, pulling up tobacco or corn or what have you.  We’re no longer showing up at the same diner at noon for lunch as three or four of our other friends and we’re going to see them two or three times a week because there’s only one or two places to eat in town.  We have three churches to choose from and it’s one of the three and five times a year those churches are going to get together and do pancake suppers.

That kind of life that was so common fifty years ago, for many of us, because we’ve moved to urban centers, has been obliterated and so now we’re trying to find ways to get people in proximity.  That’s always, to some degree, going to feel orchestrated because it is.  In small churches all they have is each other and the storyline they’re being told is that’s the problem, and I think it’s a gift.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Charlottesville.  His blog can be found at winncollier.com

The final segment of this interview, ‘God, love, God, love,’ can be found here.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#3 Killers of the Flower Moon

51Gk++yHGHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The more I think about David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI the more I realize what a brilliant work of journalism it is.  Grann doesn’t call attention to himself and never reaches too far into the ether to get at a larger point.  He simply tells the story of the 1930 Oklahoma murders of members of the Osage nation in such a way that you can’t escape the story.  In the end, the story is about America, about race, and about us.

The structuring of the story is clear and the pacing excellent.  The third act is a stunning twist.  And the ending will make you look at who we are as a country in a whole new way.

If I’m hyping #3 this much, #1 & #2 must be stellar, right?  They are.  Coming soon…

My review of this book is accessible through the title link above.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#4 Wolf Whistle

51bf+UoPhrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_If I told you there was a laugh-out-loud book about the murder of Emmett Till, the black teenager killed in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman, you’d call such a thing, at the least, in poor taste. Yet the late Lewis Nordan, who lived through that episode as a teenager in his home town of Itta Bena, MS, wrote just such a book–fictionalizing the murder and running it through his wildly imaginative brain formed by heavy immersion into Southern Gothic literature and Southern vernacular. The result is Wolf Whistle–profane, horrific, and one of my top reads of 2017 (though the novel dates to 1993).

The book is worth the price of admission just for the courtroom scene which is what Harper Lee’s would have been like had it been stripped of every veneer of high-mindedness. Alice, the young 4th-grade school teacher with the lone sense of conscience, takes her wards on a field trip to the murder trial while an unruly parrot disrupts the proceedings enough for truth to be told and the evil of the crime to be exposed, even if the perpetrators, as in real life, get off scot free. Critics call some of this magical realism. I call it brilliant.

29Emmitt-2-blog427

Emmett Till

What Nordan does is to foreground the brutality and tragedy of lower-class white Southerners, particularly as they interact with the African-American community. The characters walk over from a Flannery O’Connor story and stay in your face, all the while silent sufferers like poor Glenn Greg, (who tried to set his abusive daddy on fire and instead burned himself to a slow, painful death), linger in the background. You feel it’s not right to laugh at the clowns who drive the narrative, but in this Delta nightmare-scape, you take comfort where you can find it.

The sad history of racial violence is still close to the surface and the past is never really past.  And this is vivid, scalding writing without much hint of redemption.  Except…images of the dead teenager keep surfacing in stories and even in a raindrop on Alice’s coat, and they won’t be extinguished. As long as people keep remembering Bobo, (the Emmett Till figure in the book), the story is not finished.

The book prompted me to spend a day in visiting Emmett Till-related sites in Mississippi last summer, something I wrote about here.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#5 The Crucifixion

51EUda6wF3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Fleming Rutledge is having a long-overdue moment in the wake of her 2015 book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  I finally finished it in 2017, qualifying it for this list, and gushed about it in my review, (which you can access through the title link in the previous sentence).

Rutledge sees her book as an exercise of religious imagination, drawing together biblical and theological images of the atonement and exploring their significance.  “The principal purpose of this book,” she says, “will be to strengthen the reader’s surmise that the cross of Jesus is an unrepeatable event that calls all religion into question and establishes an altogether new foundation for faith, life, and a human future.” (2)

I credit this book with drawing me back to a love of theology, primarily because Fleming doesn’t insist that such a pursuit be done at the expense of beauty and literature.  In fact, she insists on such things.

This is my top theological recommendation these days.  Solid, comprehensive, generous, and insightful.  With the occasional quote from Flannery O’Conner, Dostoevsky, and MLK.  An easy pick.

The Greatness of the Small: A Review of Love Big. Be Well.

IMG_7336When Amy Quitman writes a letter to the unknown pastor that the Pastoral Search Committee hopes to call to their Presbyterian church in the small town of Granby, she includes an invitation that would set the hearts of potential candidates like me aflutter:

We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Mary Karr now and then.  Oh, and we like a good guffaw.  I’ll be up-front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs. (5)

Jonas McAnn, unhappily stationed in a cubicle as an insurance company employee, answers the invite, as you might expect he would.  After all, his folder of potential church profiles and questionnaires is sitting beneath a stack of books that includes the likes of John Irving and Karl Barth.  Burned by his previous pastorates, Jonas is tired of plans, programs, and church growth strategies.  A lover of beauty, he is looking for an opportunity to be a pastor:

“Lots of churches don’t actually want a pastor,” he writes back to Granby Presbyterian.  “They want a leadership coach or a fundraising executive or a consultant to mastermind a strategic takeover (often performed under the moniker of evangelism or missional engagement)…Too much pastoral leadership literature recirculates anxious efforts to make the church significant or influential or up-to-date, as if they need to harangue the church into becoming something.  I think my job is to remind the church that she already is something.  Can we settle down and be who we are, where we are?” (12-13)

The epistolary match-making works and soon Jonas is moving his family to the mountains of Virginia.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Winn Collier’s Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church [William B. Eerdman’s, 2017] is a gentle, human love story that begins with these two letters and continues with many more.  It is a novel that has big things to say yet finds its transcendence by staying close to home.  For instance, when the church plans for a new eucharistic table, two members suggest using trees from the church property and Jonas reports:

Now, every Sunday, we receive grace around a table intricately woven into our story, our place.  It’s true that a church in Seattle could feast at this table, but it’s also true that it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to them.  Particulars matter.  Stories matter.  Places matter. (130)

There’s more than a little Wendell Berry in Collier’s small town characters.  They value the small, the local, the sustainable.  And they celebrate the elemental gifts of long-lived community.

Pastor Jonas is continually directing his congregation’s focus to interactions that could be easily overlooked, such as the significance of a BBQ dinner with friends or breakfast at Stu’s with the Order of the Roasted Bean.  “Showing up, doing the work, being together–that’s our liturgy,” Jonas writes to his congregation.  “And it matters.” (99)

As a denominational official in The United Methodist Church who works with many pastors and programs, I appreciate Collier’s empathetic portrayal of a small church and its clergy leader.  Explicitly and implicitly, those who labor in small churches are often told that they don’t measure up–that they need to be more than they are.  Jonas pushes back:

When religious experts suggest an identity update, the whole proposal amounts, in my book, to nothing more than a grand slogan and a fresh coat of paint.  We could try to re-envision ourselves as a community center or a social advocacy firm if we want to wrench ourselves trying to fit into someone else’s clothes.  But look, we are the church.  We’re incompetent at most endeavors, but the Spirit has gifted us with divine energy to live into a simple and straightforward vocation.  Gathered at Jesus’s table, we feast on true life and the disperse into our run-of-the-mill lives as witnesses to the Kingdom of this Jesus who loves the whole world.  The world needs more of who we are, not less. (26)

winn-mountain-lumber_large

Winn Collier

Rural churches and pastors are having a hard time of it these days.  The letters that Jonas writes to his parishioners are a tonic for weary souls seeking to be faithful with what always seems like less.  Shining through Jonas’s words are those of the author, who shares his art and wisdom as the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (Winn also writes regularly on his self-titled blog.)

Without calling attention to itself, Collier’s writing delves deeply into questions of prayer, baptism, and the nature and mission of the Church–all sprinkled with humor, quotes from literary and theological greats, and a lot of love.

Jonas McAnn is the kind of pastor I want to have and strive to be.  Winn Collier is the kind of writer we all need for such a time as this.

Check out my interview with Winn Collier.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #7 All the Pretty Horses

51+nxfaxmXL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I’m sure Cormac McCarthy has been dying to see if this accolade would come his way.  His 1992 novel, All the Pretty Horses, is now 25 years old, but I just got around to it this year.  Something about spending a month in West Texas made it seem like an appropriate companion.

And it was.  McCarthy captures the harsh beauty of the terrain and peoples it with characters that are hard-bitten, philosophical, and even funny.  I never expected to laugh so much as I did reading the dialogue of Jimmy Blevins, one of the three teenagers at the center of the story.  What you wind up with at the end of this reading experience is a fine meditation on home – the place Americans have always had a hard time locating.

As for Billy Bob Thornton’s 2002 movie of the novel–well, I’d give that a miss.

So congrats to Cormac on making #7 on the 2017 Best Reads countdown.  I hear Dostoyevsky is looking to make the 2018 Heartlands’ list.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #8 American Fire

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Of course, it had local appeal for those of us on the Eastern Shore, but Monica Hesse’s exploration of the 2012-13 arson spree here that damaged 60+ structures was masterful writing.  In American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, the Washington Post reporter used the window of the crime to explore what was happening on a larger scale throughout rural America.  And she did it without turning the people she spent time with into caricatures.  The investigators, fire fighters, and arsonists all feel like three-dimensional people.

Good, timely writing about what’s happening in the American countryside made this is a shoo-in for the Heartlands Top 10 Best Reads of 2017 and I give American Fire the #8 slot.  My interview with Monica Hesse was also fun.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.